The Millennial Pilgrim: Managing shame and guilt of making a mistake at the workplace

How do you respond to a situation when you may have made a major high stake mistake at the workplace? How does the guilt and shame of making that mistake impact your nervous system? How must organisations deal with this more compassionately?

Somi DasUpdated: Friday, July 08, 2022, 10:33 PM IST
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Making a mistake at the workplace can completely derail your life. The shame and guilt of making a mistake take a tremendous mental toll. I have experienced this, and seen colleagues and friends go through it. The trauma that a major mistake causes is sometimes irreparable. And, we must take time to undo the damage done by something unforeseen or not entirely under our control to bring the body back to its homoeostasis.

The memory of a big fallout at the office might come back to us even when we make smaller rather innocuous mistakes. Often the memory of a traumatic experience related to work-related mistakes may trigger unwarranted and excessive panic, even at a minor error.

To avoid this constant fear of committing mistakes one must first accept the fact that mistakes are inevitable. Workplaces must create more room for absorbing human error. They need to create internal systems that acknowledge that mistakes are normal and are ready with back-up when a predictable or an unpredictable high-stake mistake is committed.

An environment of bringing mistakes to notice, without blaming and shaming should be fostered. Plus, seniors must instil confidence in juniors that if a mistake happens they can reach out to them without fear of being shouted at. It is necessary to own up to a mistake one has made at the individual level. However, at the organisational level, it is equally important that collectively people are solution-oriented than blame-oriented when things go wrong.

Further, communication is key to reducing the probability of errors. Often lack of communication and alignment of goals between the organisational needs and the individual's motivations result in errors of judgement. Finally, when you do not see the value your work brings in the larger scheme of things or the purpose it serves, you tend to take it lightly. This may result in a casual attitude towards work leading to silly mistakes. A clear sense of purpose must be given to team members so that they take pride in maintaining the quality of their output.

Self-compassion and compassion, in general, are a necessity when we deal with delicate situations like workplace mistakes. In general, we tend to go overboard with negative self-talk. A mistake at the workplace can break us because negative self-talk is reinforced with external inputs.

Sometimes the person who has committed the mistake, and reprimanded for it, may take days to gain his/her confidence back. Thus, individually, a person must take care of one's mental health while going through a crisis knowing mistakes are normal. In organisations, too, an individual must be supported by his/her team leader. The person should be given some time to process the mistake and not made to feel powerless or deserving of unfair punishment because of it.

(The writer is a mental health and behavioural sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)

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